THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES
Taken altogether, "Barcelona against Real Madrid" must be four of the most potent, resonant words in all of football. Not even the addition of "in a Supercopa semi-final in the middle of a pandemic and also in Saudi Arabia for some reason" can diminish the sense of occasion.
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And the Super Cup got a pretty super game: extra-time, which is nice, and five goals that could easily have been ten were it not for some smart goalkeeping and some frankly miserable finishing. But enough of that for now. Five is more than enough for any game.
Look at the league table, and you'll see Barcelona down in sixth, a whopping 17 points behind leaders Real Madrid. But on the pitch last night, this looked like a contest between equals. Pedri was assured. Ousmane Dembélé was shimmering and dangerous. And Ansu Fati returned with a goal.
Barcelona's crisis has, in fact, been a series of interrelated crises, all tangled up together, each reinforcing the other: a financial crisis, a recruitment crisis, an identity crisis. The first is still there, humming away ominously; it's too early to make a call on the second. But on last night's showing, this Barcelona side know how they want to play and are starting to get there. For the first time in a while, as Xavi's precocious children built little triangles in midfield, things looked almost Barcelona-like.
Of course, there are caveats. They lost, for a start. And for all that encouraging work, Barcelona's goals came when Madrid's players (a) kicked the ball into Luuk de Jong and (b) forgot to mark Ansu from a set piece. Thibault Courtois had work to do, but a little more precision up the other end and this might have ended a Super Pasting. Xavi deserves credit for pushing his team on in search of the win; Xavi can count himself lucky that Madrid didn't punish his boldness.
In the end, Barcelona's slow process of improvement was overwhelmed by two forwards having very different miracle seasons. Vinícius Júnior., who scored the opener, is in the middle of his first true flourishing as a Madrid player, and is playing with the giddy abandon of a young man who has discovered the hidden secrets of the world. That alchemical manoeuvre, that click of focus and understanding. The one that turns pace, promise and trickery into goals, goals, goals.
And then there's Karim Benzema, all the way up at the other end of a wonderful career, still brilliant, somehow more brilliant. Moments before Benzema scored Madrid's second, he took possession inside the box and, in one liquid shiver, shifted the ball onto his right foot while opening his body up. One second he was off balance and facing the wrong way, the next he was in the perfect shape to shape the ball into the far corner.
That was saved. But the cross that came back was deflected into the six-yard box, so Benzema poked the ball home. All goals count the same, whatever they look like. And strikers, proper strikers — and Benzema is one of the properest around — love them all the same. And he was still going in the 121st minute, cursing his entire team for not picking him out on the left wing.
If the rumour mill is to be believed — and yes, that's a pretty big "if" — Madrid's hierarchy are determined to add both Kylian Mbappé and Erling Haaland over the summer. This would obviously be ridiculous and hilarious in equal measure, not least because up front is the one place they look absolutely fine. Worry about that rickety defence. Worry about that increasingly arthritic midfield. But Vinícius is fizzing and Benzema looks like he could go on forever. Where are your priorities, Florentino? Is this just all about buying the biggest and shiniest names you can?
Oh. Well then. Carry on.
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Good Gollini Miss Mollini
Tottenham, to give them credit, to give them something from this comprehensive League Cup defeat, were better against Chelsea in the second leg than the first. By a fair bit. You might suggest that this is an exceptionally low bar, and we would agree. But we can only work with what we have.
The same is true of Antonio Conte, who is discovering that Tottenham have a very serviceable first team and almost nothing beyond that. An injury to Eric Dier, and suddenly nobody can pass out from the back any more. An injury to Sergio Reguilón, and suddenly Matt Doherty is out on the left flank, pouring cold water on any attack that comes his way.
And a rest for Hugo Lloris meant a game for Pierluigi Gollini, who had a good old-fashioned nightmare. Football watchers love to assume that teamsheets are also coded messages; that every list of eleven names is also a riddle, a political statement, or perhaps a cry for help. Only Conte knows if picking Gollini was meant to say something to his board — pay Hugo whatever he wants, please, please, please — but as shockers go, it was an eloquent one.
There's a north London derby on Sunday. A few weeks ago, we'd have been looking forward to this game as a real test of two rapidly improving teams. Now Tottenham are scrabbling around for form and fitness, while Arsenal, still reeling from their loss against Nottingham Forest, play Liverpool tonight. We've got something much more exciting. A crisis-off. Winner gets bragging rights; loser gets weeks and weeks of existential agony and maybe some panic buying. That's what the north London derby is for.
Big Man Up Front
This bit probably should have been about the Italian Supercoppa, which was — as we understand it — a tight game that went all the way to extra time and was won, in the very last second with the very last kick, by Alexis Sánchez. Or by an error from Alex Sandro, if you're feeling vindictive. Matteo Darmian got the assist, and isn't it nice to see two Manchester United legends thriving together?
But your Warm-Up could only take so much Superness in one evening, so instead we're here to talk about Chris Wood. Newcastle United have reportedly triggered a £25m release clause in his contract, and so Burnley's biggest man up front will be moving from one relegation fight to another. From 18th, with 11 points, to 19th, with 11 points. So, Mr Wood, what first attracted you to the multi-squillionaires Newcastle United?
As with the signing of Trippier, there seems to be a good amount of solid logic underpinning the move. Callum Wilson is injured, and this isn't really the time to be rolling the dice on somebody exciting that might take a while to get up to speed. Plus there's the more cynical value in directly weakening a relegation rival.
But we're choosing to believe there's something even more basic at play here. How might one solve a problem like Newcastle, when you have all the money in the world? You follow the data. First you take a big list of all the available not-strikers and you sort by 'crossing'. Kieran Trippier. Job done. Then you take a big list of strikers and you sort by 'height'. Chris Wood. Job double done. The game's only as complicated as you make it.
IN OTHER NEWS
We can understand why Tunisia's players and staff were angry. We can appreciate that this isn't the right thing to do. But honestly, we're surprised it doesn't happen more often. If you were having a monumentally rough time at the office, and you had a whistle round your neck that could just end the day, right then, right there… wouldn't you?
And then: again!
Since we've been talking about Barcelona against Real Madrid, let's dig out an old one. Since they lost yesterday, let's dig out a Barcelona win. And since today is Carles Rexach's birthday, Cruyff's assistant at Barcelona, let's dig out an original Dream Team one. A 5-0 win, with Romário pulling off his cool spin move? That'll do nicely.
If, like the Warm-Up, you were wondering just how Barcelona are managing to buy and register players without having any money to speak of, then the Guardian's Sid Lowe is here to help. Turns out the solution was to offer a new contract to Samuel Umtiti, a player that Barcelona have no intention of keeping.
In all probability there are promises made and details that escape us, agreements reached and not revealed which help explain why the terms were accepted. But the way Barcelona explained it, essentially Umtiti had done them a favour: he had agreed to a short-term 10% pay-cut and to spread the salary he was due to receive between now and 2023 across the next three years to 2026. An imaginative way to overcome an inherited problem
Seems good, seems fine, seems thoroughly sustainable. No further questions.
AFCON hosts Cameroon are back for their second game, against Ethiopia, and Cape Verde take on Burkina Faso. It's Atlético Madrid against Athletic Bilbao in the other semi-final of the Spanish Super Cup. And last but not least, we finally get to see Liverpool against Arsenal in the League Cup.
Normally Andi Thomas would put a little line here setting himself up for tomorrow's Warm-Up, but he's blown his whistle and gone home early. Why did he have a whistle? We don't know.
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